Act 5, Scenes 1–4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873

Act 5, Scene 1

In an antechamber in the castle of Dunsinane, a doctor is talking to a gentlewoman who attends Lady Macbeth as her lady-in-waiting. The gentlewoman has called the doctor because Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking. As the doctor questions her, Lady Macbeth enters with a candle. Though she walks, it is clear that she is asleep and perceives nothing around her. As the doctor and gentlewoman watch, she begins to rub her hands and then speaks, behaving as though Macbeth is there are they are washing their hands after the murder of Duncan. She appears distressed—though she never did during the actual murder—and imagines that she is unable to wash her hands clean of the blood, crying out that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” As she raves, she also references the murders of Banquo and Lady Macduff, disconcerting the doctor and gentlewoman even further. Finally, Lady Macbeth returns to bed. The doctor admits that he can do nothing for her disease, suggesting that Lady Macbeth’s sickness has been brought on by her own actions (“unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles;”). He merely tells the gentlewoman to look after her and departs, saying that he dare not speak about the horrible scene he has witnessed.

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Act 5, Scene 2

Lennox, Menteith, Caithness, and Angus enter at the head of an army. They refer to another army from England—led by Malcolm, Macduff, and Siward—that is nearby, close to Birnam Wood. Both armies are soon to attack Dunsinane, bringing retribution to Macbeth who, the thanes think, must now be feeling the precariousness of his position and regretting his many crimes. Those who still follow Macbeth, they observe, only do so because they are afraid.

Act 5, Scene 3

Inside the Castle of Dunsinane, Macbeth is possessed by frantic energy. He clings to the witches’ prophecies, reassuring himself that Birnam Wood can never come to Dunsinane and that “the boy Malcolm” was clearly born of woman. Hearing that the English forces are near, he decides to put on his armor. The doctor who has been attending Lady Macbeth explains to Macbeth that his wife suffers from an illness of the mind, not of the body. Macbeth orders the doctor to cure her diseased mind, but the doctor replies that in these cases, only the patient has the power to heal themselves (“Therein the patient / Must minister to himself”). The doctor comments to himself that if he was away from the castle, no amount of money could tempt him to return.

Act 5, Scene 4

The English and Scottish armies have joined forces, and are bearing down upon Dunsinane. As they pass Birnam Wood, Malcolm commands every soldier to cut a bough from one of the trees and hold it in front of him as they approach the castle so that it will not be clear to Macbeth how great their numbers are. Malcolm, Macduff, and Siward discuss what Macbeth will do, concluding that he will stay inside the castle and attempt to wait out a siege.

Analysis

Lady Macbeth, a ferocious and commanding presence in acts 1 and 2, fades out of the picture toward the end of the play, as Macbeth himself becomes more overbearing and tyrannical. Act 5, scene 1 is her final appearance, and even allowing for the fact that she is asleep, she seems greatly altered. Indeed, her attitude toward Duncan’s murder is very close to that of Macbeth in act 2, scene 2, and she even uses similar hyperbolic images to convey her sense of irredeemable pollution. Macbeth said that all great Neptune’s ocean could not wash the blood off his hands, while Lady Macbeth now thinks that all the perfumes of Arabia cannot sweeten hers.

Lady Macbeth is more honest with her husband when she is dreaming that he is there than at any time when she actually talks to him face-to-face. In Macbeth’s case, it is his soliloquies that allow himself to say things he would never say directly to his wife or anyone else. Even as Macbeth hardens into an absolute tyrant, becoming a caricature of villainy to those around him, he retains some sense of who he might have been and of what he has lost. He expresses this when he muses in act 5, scene 3:

I have lived long enough: my way of life

Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;

And that which should accompany old age,

As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have; but, in their stead,

Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,

Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

Macbeth has just been shouting and cursing at his unfortunate attendants, whose numbers are constantly dwindling as all those who have the chance to escape from the castle quickly do so. He defends his position fiercely, even as he realizes that it is not worth defending. Despite his corrupted state, he is perceptive enough to realize that he is surrounded by those who hate him and still sensitive enough to care. At such moments, his bluster about the witches’ promises of invulnerability do not even seem to convince himself, and he seems not only resigned to death, but even welcoming of it.

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Act 4, Scenes 1–3 Summary and Analysis

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Act 5, Scenes 5–8 Summary and Analysis